Firewalling child rights in the name of "protection"
Broad restrictions on children's access to information on the grounds of child protection prevent them from making informed choices and fuel discrimination, argues the Child Rights International Network (CRIN)
A harmful trend
In 2009, Lithuania banned discussion of homosexuality in schools as well as any related reference in public information that can be accessed by children.
In 2010, Venezuela approved a restrictive media law to "protect children from crude language, sexual content and violence"
In 2012, Russia made amendments to laws to promote the "protection of children from information harmful to their health and development."
Now, mobile phone operators in the UK are filtering access to websites they consider unsuitable for under 18s on the grounds of child protection. The reach of such filters extends far beyond adult sexual content, however, with many reports of blocks to other websites, including some that contain political and advocacy content.
These are just a few among a litany of news stories signalling a growing trend among governments and private companies to restrict children's access to "harmful" information. While no one would deny that children have a right to protection, the lack of transparency by some, and the overt prejudice by others, in what makes information "harmful" gives cause for concern.
Children's rights advocates quite rightly fear that imposing broad restrictions on children's access to information couched in arguments about child protection not only contributes to discrimination against certain groups - most often sexual minorities - but that such blocks also serve to deny children age-appropriate information about issues such as sex education, sexuality and drug use. This is information to which children have a right, and which can support them to make informed choices. In this way, providing children with information clearly contributes to, rather than detracts from their right to protection.
Arguments against providing children with sensitive or controversial information feed into the notion of children as helpless human beings, incapable of making choices for themselves.
Children's right to information
In many cases restricted access to information extends to the population of a country as a whole. The most obvious recent examples emerge from the repression of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, although the existence of on-going programmes of censorship is also well-known in many other countries like China.
In other countries, where adults' right to access information is and remains well-established, young people's access is limited and determined by the same adults, through online censorship or other tactics like imposing textbooks which impart bias, as discussed below. And yet, the ability to access information is particularly critical for children's development as it is the means by which children form views about the world, participate actively in society and potentially stand up for their rights and those of others later in life. If they are to function as responsible citizens, it is therefore critical that children have access to honest and objective information.
Along these lines, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out a number of provisions which specifically protect civil and political rights for children in its articles 12 to 17. Article 17 addresses children's right to information, including the right to access information and material from a variety of sources, international and national, especially where it is aimed at the protection of their social, spiritual, moral well-being and physical and mental health.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors States' compliance with the Convention, sheds light on the sort of information it considers should be provided to children: "[i]t is the obligation of States parties to ensure that all adolescent girls and boys, both in and out of school, are provided with, and not denied, accurate and appropriate information on how to protect their health and development and practise healthy behaviours. This should include information on the use and abuse, of tobacco, alcohol and other substances, safe and respectful social and sexual behaviours, diet and physical activity."
The Committee has further emphasised to individual countries in its direct recommendations their obligation to provide children and their parents with accurate and objective information about issues such as drug use (Liechtenstein, Belize) and sexual and reproductive health, including family planning (Benin).
There are some limitations placed on children's right to receive information: the Convention encourages States to develop guidelines to protect children from information and material "injurious to [their] well-being". The definition of what constitutes information injurious to children's well-being is not altogether clear, but presumably shielding children from information about the rights of others and how to make informed choices about their own lives is not what the CRC drafters had in mind. On the contrary, the history of how the CRC came into being reveals that this caveat was introduced to ensure children's protection from harmful influences in the mass media in relation to apartheid, racist theories, and other prejudicial ideologies.
Failure to provide children with objective and accurate information that promotes tolerance from a variety of sources can foster exactly the sort of biased, harmful thinking the Convention aims to avoid, and thereby only serves to reinforce adult prejudices.
A textbook error.
School textbooks provide one example of how adults' determination of the information children receive can impact them negatively and distort their impressions of different peoples and history. Israeli textbooks for example have been criticised for portraying all Palestinians as terrorists, refugees and primitive farmers. In Syria children are taught that Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar - a man responsible for mass killings and violent oppression - is the son of God. The Council of Europe has expressed concern about the teaching of creationism in schools, which it says introduces confusion in children's minds about the difference between religious belief and scientific fact; it cites examples from Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom. In addition, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has highlighted the gender bias in many countries' textbooks.
These examples illustrate how receiving one-sided information, can threaten to influence and obstruct children's enjoyment of other rights, such as the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (article 14 of the CRC) and freedom of expression, enshrined in article 13.
From information to action
Children's capacity and desire to exercise their right to information are evident around the world. The salient features of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, for example, were that so many of the protests were organised online and that they involved large numbers of young people - a reflection of the region's demographics. In the United States, meanwhile, a 17-year-old boy in Tennessee organised a Twitter campaign to protest against a bill that would have banned teachers from discussing homosexuality in schools.
The need to protect children from violence, obscenity and incitement to hatred, across the range of electronic devices, particularly where they risk the consequences of laying bare their private lives to strangers, goes without saying. And it is true that the distinction between illegal and harmful content can be hazy and subjective, often inadvertently bleeding into censorship. However, it is crucial for an open and just society that any labelling systems for online content are transparent, age-appropriate within the span of childhood, and decided collectively with civil society organisations, and children themselves. Indeed, the proliferation of what could be termed "protection creep" in which there is too much focus on protection for victims, rather than empowerment and rights, is encroaching on an ever greater number of children's freedoms. In Jamaica, for example, after schoolchildren protested against the conditions of their community's roads, the country's education minister, Andrew Holness, told schools that those who failed "to protect children from these illegal acts" would be subject to sanctions.
States and private companies are not alone in suppressing this right; some incidents have come to light in which schools have invoked child protection arguments when found to be spying on their pupils. One school in Philadelphia, for example, was found to have captured more than 56,000 images of children - mostly in their homes - on laptop cameras. The scandal broke when a school official reported the presence of drugs in one pupil's bedroom.
It is not the role of States, parents or schools to suppress or spy on children, but instead to guide them to exercise caution and encourage them to ask questions and think critically. In this way, we both recognise children's capacity to play a role in their own protection and respect their civil and political rights. Protecting children's right to information is not only fundamental to ensuring all other civil and political rights for children; it is the foundation of the rule of law and democracy for all.
Jenny Thomas is Senior Child Rights Officer at CRIN. CRIN is a global network for children's rights advocacy. We press for rights, not charity. Visit the website: www.crin.org
 Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment 4, paragraph 10.
 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Save the Children Sweden, "Legislative History of the Convention on the Rights of the Child" (May 2007), p. 483, paragraph 39
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